"Alex: The Life of a Child," an ABC movie at 9 tonight on Channel 7, is strictly for parents who want a good cry. The film adaptation of sportswriter Frank Deford's book about a daughter born with cystic fibrosis is tasteful and sensitive, but only in Hollywood's senses of both terms.
Gennie James, the 8-year-old actress chosen to play Alexandra Deford, who died before reaching the age of 9, is a jewel, and she lights up many scenes in which the child demonstrates her resolve and high spirits in the face of oncoming tragedy.
On a shopping trip with her mother, beautifully played by Bonnie Bedelia, Alex talks Mom into buying a pair of extravagantly ornamental earrings on the grounds that she can wear them "when someone finds the cure for my disease, and we all have a great big party." Dressed up in adult clothes from an attic trunk and singing along with an operatic soprano on television, the doomed little girl is the image of cherished innocence. It is impossible not to be touched.
However, the screenplay is the work of Carol Evan McKeand and Nigel McKeand, who with executive producer Leonard Goldberg worked on the old "Family" series, and the film duplicates that show's squishy, sterile view of American family life. The house does not look lived in, the family members don't interact on a believable level, the dialogue is often achingly precious.
In addition, Craig T. Nelson, cast in the role of Deford, contributes another of his numbing, trance-state, soporific performances. The man is a walking Nembutal. There is nothing in his work to suggest he has ever had a single insight into human behavior. Everyone else in the film is acting, and he's being. Being and nothingness.
The McKeands insist upon returning from the ongoing flashbacks to scenes of Deford at his typewriter composing the book. Nothing is more boring than watching a writer write, unless it is watching an actor pretending to be a writer write. Part of the point seems to be to romanticize the notion of writing, a vulgar sentiment in this context. An attempt is also made to generate suspense about whether the Defords will be able to adopt a baby from the Philippines after Alex has died. This doesn't work because the audience is given no particular reason to care.
Robert Markowitz, the director, is a grim clinician. J.A.C. Redford's music sounds just like the music used in all the other TV movies about people stricken with fatal diseases; the lonely tinkling piano is joined by lusher instrumentation as the disease progresses.
Deford is a fine writer and his book was praised as an intimate, shared catharsis. But turning the story into a TV movie that largely conforms to the terminal-disease formula inescapably cheapens it, and makes it discomforting in the wrong ways. "Alex" delivers its tears, but not a great deal more.